One of the glacial shifts in the conversation around representation has been the metronome regularity with which straight actors defend playing a gay role. Not that they stop taking them; they just have to talk about the choice more.
Fifteen years ago, that conversation never happened because actors stayed in the closet rather than risk jeopardizing their careers. Now, with more and more A listers coming out (or moving to the A list as an out performer), the press tours around each new release revolve around the question of why a straight performer took the role.
That’s already the case for Ewan McGregor as designer Halston in Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix limited series Halston. Liza’s best friend, a Studio 54 habitué, and a legendary fashion influence—though not necessarily int hat order—his life reads like the ’70s writ large: excess, talent, drug-induced highs, and abysmal lows.
No wonder Murphy was drawn to tell his story.
And yet strangely, it was McGregor and producer Dan Minahan who brought the series to Murphy, not the other way around. And perhaps the best actor for the role did indeed get it—even if McGregor’s casting was a fait accompli once he became involved. But there’s something troubling about McGregor explaining to The Hollywood Reporter that his decision to star in the project as a straight cis man boiled down to one thing: “I suppose ultimately I felt like [his sexuality] was just one part of who he was.”
There’s a world of difference between whom one has sex with and one’s sexuality. No one is defined entirely by either, but to claim that being an openly gay man at a time when it could be career suicide (even in fashion) isn’t a defining factor in a person’s life story is weak. Even more so when one hears McGregor’s voice as Halston in the trailer: flat, sardonic, gay.
Far better to say that McGregor felt compelled to tell the story because of the creative drive behind Halston’s career, as when he says, “There are people I met who do not have nice things to say about him. And there are people who love him and are unbelievably loyal to this day. I was excited to play that. To go to the extremes of his temper. But behind it all — this drive, this creative drive. And this desire to be grand. Everything had to be the best.”
As with all of Murphy’s projects, no doubt the physical design will be the best. But when it comes to casting roles with men who understand the latent fear of being punished for who they are, we’re still in the design stages.
If you do intend to watch Halston—and god knows it looks like a juicy, over-the-top delight from the trailer—do yourself a favor and also watch the impeccable documentary about his life and career, currently streaming on Netflix.